Review: Strobist Lighting Seminar DVD
David Hobby brought lighting knowledge to thousands of people with his blog and his Lighting 101 course. The subsequent community that's grown from comments on his blog and on the Strobist Flickr forum is also a fountain of knowledge covering lighting, gear, and perhaps a fetish for batteries. He's able to get absolutely stunning images by using small, hot-shoe flashes off-camera and he teaches you how to do it, too.
In this case, I'm referring specifically to his Strobist Lighting Seminar DVD set – 8 discs broken into three segments:
- All about the gear
- A live session as he teaches his seminar to a class
- Several sessions illustrating how to light everything from models to athletes in action
One of the first things you note about David's style is that he's a hacker. As he says, he would rather build his own tools when he can and save his money to buy the things he can't build. For example, he builds his snoots out of cereal boxes and tape. Instead of spending $30 or $40 for a Gary Fong lightsphere, he gets some soup at a deli and then cuts the bottom to fit over his flash (after eating the soup, so it's a 2-4-1 deal). Just look at the brown paper and string wrapper on the image and you get the idea. This is lighting on a budget, but he's not sacrificing quality in his images.
That said, I'm afraid the budget mentality really shows on the video and presentation of information. David presents information in a rapid-fire stream of consciousness. Sometimes that stream gets side-tracked, goes off on a tangent, and then hopefully comes back to the topic where it all started. Unfortunately, that kind of technique really makes it much harder for a beginner to rely on his DVD training to obtain the foundation you need in order to understand the rest of the information provided here. All of the elements you need to know are here, but they aren't presented in a clear and concise manner. You're left to pick out the pieces you need and assemble them as you go along.
Disc One starts with David sitting behind a table showing you all of the pieces of gear you need to perform basic lighting. He covers the kind of camera you need, or at least the capabilities your camera needs. As with the OneLight Workshop DVD I reviewed earlier, David is a proponent of operating in Manual Mode. Therefore, he explains why you need to be able to control your ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture – as well as why you need a hot-shoe.
Next up, he covers the flashes – starting with a 20 year old Nikon SB-26. It also works in Manual Mode so he can control the power down to increments of 1/64, has a PC sync socket to attach a trigger and a hot-shoe. You can find them (per this 2007 DVD) on eBay for $100 – $125. Modern flashes have a lot of additional features, but you also pay for them. He mentions that a Nikon SB-800 costs about $320. The current Nikon SB-900 goes for $500. The point he makes is that you don't need to pay that much for your flash if you work in Manual Mode and understand how to use the lights, rather than relying upon the elaborate TTL system. Flashes are durable devices that can work for decades, as evidenced by his SB-26. What's important is to make sure they have the features you need, such as the PC sync socket and perhaps another sync for an external battery pack. Some less expensive flashes, like the Nikon SB-600 or SB-700 don't have a PC sync socket, which means you can't hook them up to a trigger like the Pocket Wizard.
Well, it sort of means that. He also covers adapters, like the Wein HSH. Basically, it's a little block contains a household electrical jack. You plug your flash on top of it – just like a hot-shoe on your camera. You need a cable that has a PC sync jack on one end and a household plug on the other. The signal goes from your trigger into the adapter, which then triggers the flash to fire.
Speaking of triggers, he goes over everything from the cheap products that work in short distances, and perhaps not always reliably, to the gold standard of wireless transmitters, Pocket Wizard. If you're an amateur and a $30 solution that works most of the time sounds better than a nearly $200 solution that works all of the time, then you have options. For Nikon shooters, you can also use the CLS system to trigger your Nikon flashes (at least those that support CLS). The down-side is that CLS (Creative Lighting System) is a line-of-sight technology and it doesn't always fire (particularly outdoors). There are plenty of ways to trigger your flashes, but it's up to you to decide what fits your needs and budget.
He gives a very good overview of why NiMH batteries are the best way to go. You can find a lot of discussion of these batteries and your options in the comments on his blog or Flickr forum, or you can just go buy some Eneloops and a good Maha charger from Thomas Distributing and be done with it.
As a working news photographer, he's really developed a great system of carrying a light kit with some simple, clever mods. Basically, he starts with a Bogen 3373 stand and drills some holes in it so he can attach a shoulder strap. He adds a compact Westcott umbrella stuffed into his home-made snoot and attaches it to the stand with some ball bungies. Simply brilliant.
Four of the DVDs cover a day-long workshop, broken up into two morning sessions and two afternoon sessions. While I think the information he has to share in this workshop really demonstrates his knowledge, this is also where the training aspect of the DVD kit breaks down. Unlike most other training DVDs and online courses I've watched, he isn't teaching solely to the DVD viewer. In fact, you are pretty much an after-thought because he's really in front of customers who attend his workshop while the cameras roll to catch it.
The production values here are pretty poor. When he references a company, he spells it out for the attendees and mentions it should be displayed for the DVD views. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. There are moments when he literally walks out of frame and it takes a moment for the camera-operator to realize that he needs to move to get the instructor back on screen. David has a microphone and is generally clearly heard during the course, but the class participants are not very clear. In many cases, David will repeat their question and the provide the answer so you know what's being asked, but there are times when he forgets to do that and you may not really understand why he's giving a response.
One of the elements I found most frustrating was during his shooting examples. David would get members of his audience to pose as subjects while he demonstrated the results of various lighting changes. However, you don't get to see those results as he takes them. Neither does his live class, obviously. Instead, you wait for him to hook up his camera to a projector and talk through the photos after the fact. This is a big departure from most training and I think it's a poor choice. I've attended live training where the photographer would tether his camera so the audience could see the result of a shot as it happened. Other online and DVD training also tend to put the photographs before the viewer to sync up with the live action. It's great reinforcement to see the image results as the trainer is talking about what he's doing. In fact, David's later Bonus Sessions use this technique and it works. I'm baffled and disappointed that you can't see the photos during the actual workshop session.
As I mentioned previously, David provides his information in rapid-fire discussion. I don't want to say that the guy never shuts up, but it just seemed that there were hardly any natural pauses to allow the information to sink in before proceeding to the next subject. Also, he goes on various tangents that interrupted the information he's presenting.
While the morning sessions are primarily lecture, they also re-hash some of the information you watched in the first DVD on gear. The afternoon session start to show some of the lessons in use, and also get into creative use of light and light modifiers, ranging from umbrellas, color gels to balance incandescent or florescent light, and ordinary objects found in the room. He gives great examples of how the distances from flash to subject affects the quality of light, as well as the range of light provided by the Inverse Square Law. You just don't get to see those results while it's happening. Another complaint is that he occasionally brings up a topic, but then doesn't follow-up. For example, he mentions how you can use lighting to make an editorial statement, to make someone's skin look smoother, older, etc. Why wasn't that incorporated into the training and reinforced with examples? Because it was something that came out in a stream of discussion, but wasn't really part of the course.
I can't fault the information and knowledge that David shares, but I can fault the manner in which he shares it. It's like drinking from the firehose because he's trying to fit in everything he knows. I admire his talent and intent to share, but not his planning and presentation.
The remaining three DVDs follow him on nine assignments. You see simple portraits indoors to bikini models at sunset. He covers balancing flash to ambient light in hallways and swimming pools. He shows how to use two small flashes to light a high-school gym for a basketball game, and more. These are the sessions where he teaches directly to the DVD viewer and you can see results included in post-processing as he shoots. It not only reinforces his lessons from the lighting workshop, but it also gives you a great insight to how he prepares, composes and shoots an assignment. He's amazingly flexible with relatively inexpensive and lightweight gear. As he mentions a few times, the small flashes have enough power and he doesn't have to carry a heavy ProPhoto kit around. Perhaps more importantly, he can shoot at lower power than a studio light when needed, or arrange his light modifiers in such a way that he could practically shoot inside the area where a studio soft-box would be – giving him an advantage that studio lights lack.
There's a lot to learn here. Should you buy the DVDs? That depends upon your intent and experience. If you want a clear, concise discussion of lighting that's easy to understand, this isn't the place to get it. David discusses all of the things you need to know, but it takes him four DVDs to convey that pertinent lighting information that Zack Arias delivers in 27 minutes. However, there is more information about how to use those lights, once you have a foundation, than Zack provides. He meanders around quite a bit, but it really is a wealth of information. If you have patience and the ability to track information spread diversely around the DVDs, then you can benefit from the Strobist Lighting Seminar DVD.